Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Soul of New Orleans

City flag of New Orleans, Louisiana, USAImage via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia
The Soul of New Orleans
By Shelah Moody

There is a certain sweetness about New Orleans; from the delicious snowballs and the fluffy beneighs to  the way men and women call you “baby--” whether they know you or not. The way that people sit on their porches on soft summer days. After visiting new Orleans for six days this summer, I  now know exactly what the Louis Armstrong meant when he sang “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.”
Louis Armstrong, jazz trumpeterDuring my stay in NOLA, I visited one of the city’s landmarks, Congo Square, aka Louis Armstrong Park.  During the 1800s, enslaved Africans gathered at this site to keep their culture alive through the power of singing, dancing and drumming. At night, you can hear the crawfish in the surrounding body of water singing sweetly and loudly. 
Thanks to my educational guide, activist, volunteer and New Orleans native Sakura Kone, I got a tour of Lower 9th Ward, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I visited the sight where Lower  9th Ward resident Robert Green lost his mother and granddaughter in storm; sadly, three broken steps are all that remain of his former home. Green and his family now live in a brand new two story home built by Brad Pitt’s Make it Right foundation. 

I also visited St. Augustine, oldest African-American Catholic parish in the nation and Wesley United church, a hub for education and social activism, which is currently in the process of being re-built by Kone and a large group of volunteers. 

I also met local artists and musicians, such as singer/songwriter Ben Hunter, who have held on in the midst of tragedy. In 2008, Hunter released a CD called “Traveler: A Healing Album for the City of New Orleans,” which features songs such as “Home,” “Abandon Souls” and “Before the Fall.”  Hunter, who also made a guest appearance on “Treme” was the subject of a documentary “Baptized by Katrina,” which was featured at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2006.
New Orleans is a city in recovery, in the wake of Katrina and the recent Gulf oil spill. The HBO series “Treme” and the Saints’ Super Bowl victory this put New Orleans back in the spotlight in terms of arts culture. 
During Fourth of July weekend (July 2-4) I attended the Essence Music Festival, which brings thousands of people to New Orleans every year. The concerts were held at the New Orleans Superdome, which five years ago, became a temporary refuge for Katrina survivors five years ago.

While supernovas Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige and LL Cool headlined on the main stage that weekend, some of New Orleans’ finest artists, including Grammy winner Irma Thomas, Irving Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstafunk and Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers drew the masses to the Superlounges.
Thomas, one of the guest stars on “Treme” celebrated her 50th year in the music business last year. Her original hits include “Time is On My Side,” covered by the Rolling Stones, “Ruler of My Heart,” covered by Otis Redding and “You Can Have My Husband But Please Don’t Mess With My Man,” which she recorded at age 19.
“Ironically, more men ask for that song than women,” said Thomas.
In the press room, Thomas, who is the mother of four and also a great grandmother, was asked to comment on the highly publicized crime rate in New Orleans.
“I don’t like it, but by the same token, New Orleans’ crime situation isn’t any worse than any other major city,” said Thomas. “We’re just on the forefront because of the flooding that happened in New Orleans. Whenever something happens, it’s blown up larger than life because we are recovering from the flood. We will have got to get a handle on it some way and I think that parents are going to have to start being parents again and not expecting anyone else to do their jobs for them.” 
New Orleans rapper Mystikal, perhaps (best known for his hit “Skake Ya Ass” ) who recently served a stint in prison,  also found his way into the press room at the Superdome. Mystikal, aka Michael Lawrence Tyler, spoke about his personal recovery, comeback and new album on Jive/Big Truck records.
“I’m putting that thang together, I’m telling y’all, these rappers are in trouble, for real,” said Mystical.  “Fiyah like cayenne! I had the opportunity to showcase the growth that took place in me, the man, and definitely play it over to the artist. I missed the stage; I missed y’all so much. It is an absolute blessing to leave the people for six years and when I come back, their hands are still up. Thank you for helping me stay relevant in this industry.”
People in New Orleans love sweet soul music, and one of the highlights of the festival was the return of 1980s pop star El Debarge, who hade a guest appearance on stage with Keri Hilson at the Superdome. Debarge’s new album, scheduled for release this fall, will was co-produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmunds, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
 “I think what makes a good love song is.. when you can work a song from beginning to the end, as if you were in bed making love to someone who you felt really special about. Where you can take it slow at first  and just let it grow, let it do what it do,” said Debarge. 
Clearly, people in New Orleans love Gladys Knight. The R an B legend drew a huge crowd when she appeared for a photo op with Janet Jackson in the Wal-Mart booth at the New Orleans Convention Center. Before she took the stage at the Superdome, Knight stopped into the press tent to praise the Essence Music Festival and introduce her new line of jewelry made by Kumasi artisans in Ghana. Incidentally, the beads for her jewelry are crafted from Knights recycled records and other recycled products.  
“I’m excited,” said Knight. “I’ve always wanted to do something that would include all of us as a people. I’ve always wanted to make a difference through my music. I’m so proud of this line because it makes a difference in the lives of people in Africa.  I’ve been to the motherland and it is beautiful but they still need help.  They are so proud of us as a people here in the U.S. even though we still have our problems. They used us as a role model. We need to reach back and help them. Any time you buy a piece of my jewelry, you are helping that country, that tribe.”

For info on the 2011 Essence Music Festival, visit For information on New Orleans, go to

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